Tarija, Bolivia: An Up-and-Coming Expat Haven

Wine grapes need a certain type of climate to thrive. Luckily, this type of temperate weather, rarely very cold or very hot, makes for very comfortable living for people too, in Bolivia’s wine country.

It may not be as well-known as neighbors Argentina or Chile. But Bolivia’s homegrown wines, especially the red tannat variety, are getting increasing international attention from prestigious industry publications like Wine Spectator. And Bolivians are very proud, frequenting wine tours of the region’s many bodegas (wineries) and carrying-on cases when they fly home. (Wine gets a pass when it comes to banned liquids at airport security. A typical wine tour with tastings at multiple bodegas, as well as appetizers, is about $20 per person.)

The industry is centered on Tarija, a mid-sized city of about 500,000 (in the wider metro area) in the far south of the country, near the border with Argentina. But you don’t have to be a wine connoisseur to thrive here. This low-slung city bisected by a river (the Guadalquivir—named after the river in southern Spain) has history, culture, outdoors fun, stunning mountain views, friendly people, and more. Of course, daily highs in the 70s F and lows in the 50s F, with some cold snaps and occasional heavy rains, is also an attraction.

Bolivia, in general, has a tremendously low cost of living. You really can live on a small pension or Social Security here thanks to a typical monthly budget of under $1,000 per month, including rent, for a retired couple. Some single retired folks have managed to cut their budget to half that, and they still have a rich, fulfilling life.

With a price of that local wine running $2 a glass and steak dinners at the best restaurant in town at $10 per plate, it’s not hard to see why. Your fixed expenses are low too. Rents start at about $200 per month and go up from there. Rentals are best found online, on local classified sites, on Facebook, or boots on the ground, looking for signs. Same goes for real estate to buy, although there are some active real estate agents. You can find modern two-bedroom apartments in town, in great locations, starting at $100,000.  Although there are plenty of deals below that too. You’ll spend about $20 per week on your monthly grocery bill, splitting your shopping between supermarkets and farmers’ markets overflowing with fresh produce.

All that, and Bolivia is quite modern, with good cellphone coverage, as well as high-speed internet, and other modern conveniences.

To be sure, Bolivia is not for everybody. It’s definitely a developing country. The expat community is quite small compared to other more well-known Latin American destinations. It’s much, much smaller than Ecuador, for example. There’s not much tourism either compared to other South American countries like Peru or Argentina. It definitely helps to speak Spanish, as most locals don’t speak English, although they are quite welcoming.

So, you’ll be somewhat of a trailblazer, although you will find that the small expat population will be quite supportive of you in any way they can. For those retirees and others who have come to call it home, the benefits far outweigh these potential drawbacks.

Of all the up-and-coming expat havens in Bolivia, Tarija in particular has a lot to recommend it, including city conveniences like larger grocery stores, multiplex theaters, a small airport, and hospitals, while retaining a small-town feel.

Founded in 1574, Tarija’s historic town center is full of well-kept and flower-filled parks and plazas, as well as grand buildings and homes in colonial, Art Nouveau, and other architectural styles. Here you’ll find plenty of benches under shade trees to relax with your spouse or friends, just chatting and people watching. There are vendors selling nuts, cut up fruit, juices, and other snacks.

A favorite activity of local residents, especially in mid to late afternoons is to have a coffee and sit outside, enjoying the weather. You get all the fancy drinks you find at a certain well-known coffee chain from the U.S., but you pay about a quarter of the price.

Medical care in Tarija is worth a closer look. There are hospitals and medical clinics, including specialists. Expats typically go to private facilities, as public hospitals often are understaffed and underequipped. The costs are low and the care is good, say local expats. It’s about $15 to $30 per doctor visit and a bit more for a specialist. Medications, many of which are available without a prescription, are about 30% of U.S. prices.

But for serious issues, many travel to nearby Argentina or larger cities in Bolivia like Santa Cruz de La Sierra or La Paz for care. So if somebody has serious chronic health issues it might not be the best place. Just another factor to consider.

The best way to get to Tarija is to fly. If you’re coming from outside the country, go to one of the main international airports in either Santa Cruz de La Sierra or La Paz, and then take a short intra-country flight from there to Tarija for about $40. The bus ride through the Andes is just not worth the hours and hours spent on those curvy and often dangerous mountain roads.

One thing to keep in mind is that recently the complicated and expensive tourist visa requirements for U.S. citizens have been lifted. Now you can simply fly to Bolivia and receive your stamp like most other nationalities. You get 30, 60, or 90 days in the country at a time. You can extend while in the country by applying through immigration. But you can only stay a maximum of 90 days per calendar year as a tourist.

So that’s enough time for a scouting trip. But if you decide to live in Bolivia, you’ll have to apply for residence visa with the Bolivian immigration department, proving you have a clean police record and sufficient funds for live in the country full time. The process is said to be improving, although speaking Spanish or having someone who does to help you will definitely be an asset in the application process.

The Takeaway

For those looking for a comfortable climate, extremely low cost of living, an exciting cultural vibe, and a bit of adventure…Tarija fits the bill.

Video Tour of Tarija

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